Niner Faithful are chomping at the bit to see the 2018 rookies in action, but how did San Francisco do with its 2017 draft picks? A year later, Locked on 49ers takes a look back at the Class of 2017.
It’s easy to get excited about Mike McGlinchey, Dante Pettis, Fred Warner and the rest of the shiny new toys following what seems to be a successful 2018 draft for the 49ers, but what about the 10 men who were in this position just 365 short days ago, many of whom made invaluable contributions to the red-and-gold as rookies?
Here, we provide a retrospective look at San Francisco’s Class of 2017 and grade each selection. Grades are awarded based on the impact they made as a rookie, their overall importance to the 49ers and long-term upside versus when they were selected.
1. DE Solomon Thomas (First round, No. 3 pick)
Fans have certain expectations of what they want out of a defensive player when he’s taken in the first five picks of the draft: An unstoppable force who is all over the field, delivering punishing hits, batting passes to the ground and serving as a non-stop migraine to the opposing players and coaches alike. Thomas, who produced just three sacks while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 92 edge defender out of 106 qualifiers, did none of those things in 2017.
While he didn’t cause the kind of mayhem the 49ers likely desired when they made him the third player off the board, Thomas turned in an adequate rookie campaign, ranking as the No. 45 edge defender against the run and gradually improving across the board as the season progressed. By most accounts, Thomas is more comfortable, more vocal and primed for a breakout heading into hits sophomore season.
San Francisco plans to play Thomas at “LEO” in its base defense this season and shift him inside to the rush the quarterback on obvious passing downs, and doing so should free up the 256-pounder to generate far more pressure than he produced as a rookie. According to PFF, Thomas pressured the quarterback on 21 percent of his inside pass-rushing snaps compared to only 16 percent when rushing from the edge.
Thomas, who missed OTAs while still attending college a year ago and admitted that the mental side of the NFL represented his biggest adjustment, will also be the beneficiary of a full offseason with the red and gold.
In an absolute worst-case scenario, Thomas should remain a quality run-stopper for the 49ers, but it’s not unfair for coaches and fans to be looking for a big jump from the Stanford powerhouse in year two. Playing next to DeForest Buckner, who led the NFL with 19 quarterback hits a season ago, will only help his cause.
2. LB Reuben Foster (First round, No. 31 pick)
Save for a pair of injuries that cost him six games, Foster’s rookie season couldn’t have gone much better. From the first time he stepped onto an NFL gridiron, the first-year linebacker was an absolute juggernaut, doling out punishing tackles, clearly making those around him better, using his instincts to make lightning-quick reads and reactions, and taking to professional football like a duck to water.
Given Foster’s tendency to fearlessly launch himself at the point of attack, there will be questions about his ability to stay on the field, especially after he suffered an ankle injury in Week 1 last season before sustaining a rib injury in Week 7 (the former cost him the next five games, and the latter cost him one), but Niner Nation should be salivating at the idea of witnessing Foster hunt ball-carriers like he was shot out of a cannon for years to come.
After posting 72 tackles in 10 games last season and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 4 linebacker with a score of 90.7, what can Foster do as an encore? He has unlimited upside that he could well fulfill, assuming he can avoid injuries and stay out of trouble away from the gridiron.
In a post-draft interview last year, John Lynch revealed that he would have drafted Foster with the third overall pick had Thomas been taken with one of the first two selections, and Foster proved that it wasn’t just “front-office talk” from the San Francisco GM with an eye-popping rookie campaign. If all goes as planned, Foster will be the take-no-prisoners centerpiece of this quickly improving defense for many years.
Even as a first-rounder, Foster has the upside to be the steal of the 2017 draft after going No. 31 overall, and off-field concerns are the only reason he doesn’t get an A+.
3. CB Ahkello Witherspoon (Third round, No. 66 pick)
Another defender with enticing upside, Witherspoon experienced a shaky training camp and was inactive for the first four games last season, but he bounced back by concluding the campaign as the team’s best cornerback.
San Francisco covets a defense built around length and athleticism, and the second-year corner has a surplus of both qualities. Witherspoon flashed strong ball skills and impressive speed as a rookie, allowing him to quickly close on the receiver even after he’d been beat.
As Pro Football Focus’ No. 42 cornerback out of 121 qualifiers, Witherspoon will anchor San Francisco’s up-and-coming secondary, he could have the brightest future out of anyone in the talented unit, and he seems like a near lock to at least play up to his third-round pick status (if not greatly eclipse it).
4. QB C.J. Beathard (Third round, No. 104 pick)
One of the only swings and misses of the Lynch-Shanahan era thus far, Beathard struggled to deliver when thrust into action in Week 6 last season.
Beathard threw four touchdowns against six interceptions while completing a measly 54.9 percent of his passes, and while it was a somewhat limited sample size, the Iowa product did little to inspire anyone that he could be the quarterback of the future.
While the struggles were aplenty, the undersized signal-caller showed a willingness to stand in the pocket and take some vicious hits as a rookie, and his perseverance paid off when he turned in an excellent Week 10 performance against the Giants to give the 0-9 Niners their first win of the season.
This seemingly mega-reach of a selection is semi-forgivable because there was no way to know San Francisco would complete an in-season trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, who would knock it out of the ballpark by winning all five of his starts to earn a massive extension. If nothing else, perhaps Beathard can develop into a serviceable backup to the $137.5-million man.
5. RB Joe Williams (Fourth Round, No. 121 pick)
Before an ankle injury cost him his rookie season, Williams seemed ticketed for the role that UDFA Matt Breida eventually claimed as his own: A change-of-pace speedster who would spell Carlos Hyde. Now, he may be fighting for his roster spot in 2018.
Since he was inactive all last season, he’s one of San Francisco’s most difficult players to grade. Williams was an absolute beast for Utah in his senior season, taking the rock 210 times for 1,407 yards and 10 touchdowns, so the talent is there, but questions about his passion for and commitment to football have lingered.
With a crowded backfield that already includes established ball-carriers (Jerick McKinnon and Breida) along with a plethora of running backs battling for a roster spot (Jeremy McNichols, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson), Williams needs a big summer and an even better preseason to claim his place on the 53. If he delivers, he’ll be in the mix for touches when the regular season starts and could even push Breida for the change-of-pace role.
Perhaps there isn’t a single player on San Francisco’s roster with a greater discrepancy between their ceiling and their floor, and while it may not be fair to a second-year player, this may truly be a make-or-break campaign for Williams.
6. TE George Kittle (Fifth round, No. 146 overall pick)
Get excited, people. If you want a skill position player with tantalizing upside who looks like a slam-dunk to outperform his draft status, Kittle is your guy.
Kittle played his college ball at Iowa, a noted pound-the-rock program, making it easy for pro teams to sleep on the Hawkeye tight end, and the Niners waited until the fifth round before finally pouncing on their diamond in the rough.
Even with subpar quarterback play in last season’s early goings, Kittle was a model of consistency, posting adequate (if unspectacular) numbers and notching at least one reception in all 16 games, despite drawing just seven starts.
While his receiving line (43-515-2) from last season doesn’t jump off the page, he finished second to Evan Engram in receptions by a rookie tight end, and Kittle is one of only four rookie tight ends to rack up 515-plus receiving yards and two or more scores since 2011.
As was seemingly the case with every player who donned the red and gold a year ago, Kittle finished the season strong, nabbing 11 receptions for 194 yards and a score over his last three games, and if he gets anywhere near that level of production in his second season, Kittle has a chance to be quite the late-round steal.
7. WR Trent Taylor (Fifth Round, No. 177 pick)
Taylor might be a bit undersized for an NFL receiver, and Niner fans may spend years holding their breath as he zips over the middle of the field to haul in a tough reception while trying to avoid a bone-jarring hit, but he gives San Francisco a viable long-term solution at slot receiver, a position which has been something of a blackhole for the team for far too long.
Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin are likely entrenched as the starters, and with San Francisco trading up to nab Dante Pettis in the second round of last year’s draft, not to mention the presence of veteran Aldrick Robinson and second-year man Kendrick Bourne, who has had a strong minicamp, it’s safe to say that Taylor will once again be battling for snaps this season. But after Taylor notched 43 receptions for 430 yards and two scores as a rookie while showing an impressive report with Jimmy G, slot receiver should be his position to lose.
8. DT D.J. Jones (Sixth Round, No. 198 pick)
Something of a dart throw by San Francisco (that’s how most selections in sixth and seventh round can be described), Jones played sparingly in his rookie campaign, notching 10 tackles in nine games.
Jones wasn’t on the field much at Ole Miss, seeing the field for fewer than half of the squad’s defensive snaps in his final season, but his 321-pound frame and high motor likely intrigued San Francisco’s decision-makers.
Jones had a fairly nondescript rookie campaign, so it’s hard to know exactly what the 49ers have, but he should be back in the mix on San Francisco’s interior defensive line, likely as a rotational backup who could see the gridiron whenever someone needs a breather. He won’t be the draft pick that makes or breaks the 2018 draft, but he was an acceptable flyer for Lynch and company.
9. DE Pita Taumoepenu (Sixth Round, No. 202 pick)
A lot of what was said about Jones also applies to Taumoepenu, though standing at just 245 pounds, the All-Pac 12 Honorable Mention is an undersized edge-rusher for the NFL.
He was active in just two games last season, didn’t crack the stat sheet, played only on special teams and will likely be competing for a roster spot in 2018.
Like Jones, he’s not going to make or break San Francisco.
10. FS Adrian Colbert (Seventh round, No. 229 pick)
Had Colbert not missiled into the frame from his safety position and forced a fumble with a picture-perfect tackle during San Francisco’s preseason finale last season, it’s entirely possible that he wouldn’t have even made the team. Now that he has, he’s here to stay.
Colbert enters the new campaign as the squad’s unquestioned starting free safety, having put enough good football on tape a year ago to entrench himself in the starting lineup.
Colbert provides a little bit of everything: Big hits, solid ball skills, better-than-expected wrap tackling and impressive speed, and he used those tools to improve throughout his rookie season while steadying San Francisco’s once-leaky pass defense. He’s also capable of playing cornerback in a pinch, as he did during his senior season at Miami. He took it very personally after going No. 229 overall – something he made crystal clear on Twitter – and he’s played with a massive chip on his shoulder ever since.
It’s almost impossible to do much better with your seventh-round pick.
Three Niners who need to step up to contain Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes is the talk of the NFL, and why not? The second-year Kansas City signal-caller has turned in an historic performance over the first two weeks of the 2018 campaign, firing 10 touchdown strikes against zero turnovers while moving his unit up and down the field at will and leading the Chiefs to a league-high 80 points.
So, who needs to step up if the 49ers are to stand any chance of derailing Kansas City’s seemingly unstoppable 23-year-old quarterback? After watching DeForest Buckner and Richard Sherman compete at their typical All-Pro levels through the first two games, we’re operating under the assumption that they’ll keep it up in Week 3, so both players are exempt from this list. Instead, here are the top three defenders that need to take their game to the next level if the Niners are going to slow down Mahomes.
LB Reuben Foster
San Francisco’s resident human missile makes his highly anticipated return to the gridiron following his two-game suspension, and not a moment too soon.
Though he’s suited up for just 10 games since being drafted 31st overall in last year’s draft, Reuben Foster has already shown himself to be a rare breed: A ferocious hitter whose fearless style of play jumps off the screen to even the most casual of football observers. Foster brings the swagger, and it rubs off on his defensive mates. Need proof? Look at Week 1 against Carolina last season, and note the stark difference in the unit from when he was on the field to after he exited with an injury.
49er Faithful have salivated at the idea of seeing Foster and breakout rookie Fred Warner on the field at the same time, and San Francisco’s youthful linebackers will be put to the test in their first game together.
Foster is just as proficient dropping back in coverage as he is laying a punishing hit on the ballcarrier, and regardless of his assignment on Sunday, he’ll have a huge say in whether San Francisco can stop the explosive Mahomes.
DE Solomon Thomas
With DeForest Buckner almost certain to command significant attention from Kansas City’s offensive line, San Francisco will need someone other than just their stud defensive tackle to supply the heat (so far this season, Buckner has 3.5 sacks; the rest of the team has 1.5 sacks). Enter Solomon Thomas.
The third overall pick of last year’s draft, Thomas has just three career sacks and is still looking for his first of 2018 (though he did generate four quarterback hurries while playing on only 47 percent of San Francisco’s defensive snaps last week), and there’s no better time to accomplish that feat than during a matchup against a quarterback who’s picked defenses apart for two weeks and seemingly can’t miss his target.
While Thomas’ role has become a point of contention among fans and those who cover the team, the second-year man will undoubtedly see an uptick in snaps if he generates a bit more pressure, and that process began last week. But it’s one thing to hurry the quarterback; it’s quite another to make contact, affect passes and drop him behind the line of scrimmage, and if Thomas can do so, then San Francisco’s chances of forcing a mistake out of the young quarterback will grow exponentially.
Mahomes threw more touchdowns (six) than incompletions (five) last week, so knocking him around a bit will be imperative to disrupting his rhythm. And while it’s almost always the quarterback who scores the headlines, Mahomes’ blistering start to the season is due in no small part to his stout offensive line, which has permitted just two sacks through two games, despite the signal-caller already chucking 55 passes.
Thomas can lineup virtually anywhere on the defensive line, and he’ll need to bring is his A-game if he’s to fight his way through and around Pro Football Focus’ seventh-ranked unit through two games. Seeing as how Kansas City starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz have only permitted six pressures in two games, this could be the week for San Francisco to see what Thomas can do with some extensive playing time from the interior, where he’s at his best as a pass-rusher anyway.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Simply put, Ahkello Witherspoon struggled mightily in Week 2.
The second-year corner, who flashed enticing upside at the end of last season, couldn’t keep up with Detroit’s prolific passing attack, and he was victimized for a pair of touchdowns while yielding eight receptions for 99 yards and taking a pair of penalties on 13 targets.
Still, it’s important to remember that two games is an extremely small sample size, and he fared far better against the Vikings in Week 1 (71.0 grade from PFF) than he did against the Lions in Week 2 (27.9 grade).
The good news for Witherspoon? He’ll likely spend some time covering fourth-year man Chris Conley, who hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since being taken by Kansas City in the third round of the 2015 draft. Even with the ever-accurate Mahomes racking up 582 yards through the air, Conley has just three grabs for 32 yards and a touchdown in the first two games. He’s also lost a fumble.
If Witherspoon finds himself matched up against Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins, he’ll undoubtedly have his work cut out for him, but such a challenge would also give him every opportunity to show that last week was a fluke, a small blip on the radar of what has been a very promising start to his NFL career. With the second-year man coming off a subpar outing against the Lions and teams still shying away from Richard Sherman, Witherspoon is all but certain to be thrust into the limelight on Sunday.
If the Niners get the same confident, physical cornerback they saw at the end of last season, then Witherspoon should at least hold his own, even against the prolific Mahomes-led aerial attack, which comes into the Week 3 clash firing on all cylinders.
Podcast: Friday Mailbag
Podcast for Friday, September 21
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